“And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”
- “Sea Fever” John Masefield (1878-1967)
“If we die, we want people to accept it. We’re in a risky business…The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”
- Gus Grissom, NASA Astronaut (1926-1967)
Try as I might I couldn’t glimpse the traditional emblem of the buccaneer on the hull of the space capsule as it rolled on the surface of the ocean, awaiting collection. It’s a fanciful notion, of course, but in a sense the flag of an erstwhile brand of free enterprise – famous for its swashbuckling style – wouldn’t have been out of place had it flown as a marker denoting the position of the capsule. For there is now no arguing the fact that the privateers have returned. Not in brigantines and corsairs but in vessels which history may come to laud and romanticise just as much. The Dragon capsule may have been a ghost ship with not a soul on-board (it was after all an unmanned cargo vessel) but in many ways it was occupied, “laden to the plimsoll-line”1 with the hopes of a new generation of space explorers – men like Elon Musk (the head of Space X) who are determined to go their own way, to fly their own distinctive colours rather than the less credible banner of any one nation state.
Those colours translate into an agenda which mirrors the one the BIS has been pursuing for almost eighty years. It coincides with the Society’s aspirations and dreams for opening up the space frontier; and for achieving that goal in a way in which national governments, so reluctant to pool resources and expertise, have been manifestly unable to do. One can only hope that the sight of a Dragon capsule, riding the ocean swell after the completion of another successful mission, will soon become commonplace, finally delivering on the promise of Apollo. The day when those capsules contain space travellers rather than just supplies can’t be too far off; and those latter day Dragon-riders will be more than happy to accept the risks and dangers Gus Grissom once spoke of in exchange for a chance to view their home world from space. Who wouldn’t?
For all the risks and dangers (and all the privations of living in micro-gravity) spaceflight is sexy and glamorous. Anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t have a pulse, or one iota of imagination. And on occasions such as these, analogies with the glamour of archetypal figures from myth and legend are almost impossible to resist, for such undeniably heroic efforts speak to our collective ancestral past, to a time when just straying into the woods or onto the moors was dangerous. So when humanity (or at least one of its emissaries) completes a far greater journey it’s fair to say that a new breed of Knight has entered the Hall of the Kings to take their place at the Round Table.
There are still empty chairs at that table waiting to be filled by other entrepreneurs. Their arrival will complete an alliance of the young and the gifted and the visionary (and it has to be said – in some cases at least – of the extremely wealthy) who are willing to invest in nothing less than the future of humanity. And how refreshing and encouraging that such investment should be in space technology rather than in a new luxury yacht or in a football team. In this new age of austerity such financial commitment is perhaps beyond the fiscal reach of all democratically elected governments So, as was the case in the 18th century, some of those same governments have turned to the private sector to extend their reach on the high seas, to build new avenues of commerce and enterprise.
Across the world scientists, technicians and engineers are busy defining the future by means of a new equation. Skylon has its own unique symbol in that formula, as does SpaceShipOne and a host of similar endeavours. And the BIS can play a role too, by contributing, as it always has, design concepts, strategies and “world class research”2; by being the launch pad for ideas like Daedalus and Icarus which are decades ahead of their time.
John Masefield’s short poem suddenly seems to have a very modern resonance, albeit in connection with a fever of a different kind, a passion for space rather than the sea (although in the end that may amount to the same thing). Long may Space X venture “down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.” The compass of the future has swung about to point in a new direction, out into the ocean of the night. One armada has been laid to rest, even as another begins to assemble. The great space-galleons of old are dead. Long live the new privateers!
Mark Stewart, FBIS
Editor: Odyssey e-magazine
1. The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
2. Martin Griffiths (University of Glamorgan): BIS evening lecture 23 May 2012: Visions of the Future: Imaginative Literature, Spaceflight and the BIS